Am I Right for Research?


Dear MentorDoctor,I am in my first year as a postdoc in a field that is different from what I studied or worked in. I am one of only two scientists of color within the department. Despite my strong interest in learning, I am starting to question myself and my abilities. Rather than understanding I'm a first-year postdoc and will go through an adjustment period, my mentor has expressed disappointment in my performance and asked me to reconsider having a career in research. I'm a little bitter and feel I've been treated unfairly. How should I handle the situation?--Dazed and Confused

Anthony DePass: I am assuming that your search for a mentor included considerations such as experience, professional accomplishments, professional status of previous mentorees, and the ability to provide a productive research environment. If that is the case, and the fact that you did not mention any personal issues, then the analysis of your performance by this person is something to be taken seriously.

Your suitability for a research career is not only measured by your technical expertise, but more importantly, your maturity in thought as demonstrated by your critical thinking skills and the ability to independently develop a research project. Everyone (independent of color) has to go through an adjustment period, and your success in this very competitive career path (the stakes get higher later) mandates that you demonstrate outstanding professional promise by the postdoctoral stage.

A serious self-assessment is then necessary regarding your professional interests and how they relate to your skill set. This starts with your listing what you see as your professional strengths and weaknesses. A conversation with your mentor should follow as to the specific reasons that led to his/her negative assessment. You should request specific feedback as to your strengths and the career directions he/she sees as more suited for you. You might want to have similar conversations with other senior individuals (mentors). Evaluate your peers (especially those considered on track) and compare their accomplishments to yours.

Your assessment might reveal that you have the strengths necessary for a research career, but the current environment does not allow them to be evident. On the other hand, you might learn that your skill set makes you more suited for one of the many career paths open to Ph.D.s that is not research focused.

Isabella Finkelstein: You should remind yourself that you do have a Ph.D.; therefore you have the credentials for a career in research. You stated that you are in an area different from your area of training. That is the purpose of a postdoctoral fellowship. You must not start to question your abilities. Although you did not say how long you had been in the laboratory, it always takes time to adjust to a new setting. Since you were coming in to a new area, it would have been appropriate for your mentor to pair you with someone in the lab that could assist you in learning the new techniques. Evidently this was not done.

You should have a talk with your mentor about the concerns you have expressed to us. If that has already happened, perhaps you could talk to someone in the laboratory that you feel could help you. If you have done all of the above and you feel that the situation is not going to get better, perhaps you should look for a new laboratory. It is very important that you do not let a bad experience make you lose your confidence in your ability to do research. We need you too much.

Judy Jackson: If you are committed to a career in research, then don't even think of giving up. Make a candid and honest assessment of your situation. Realizing that you are in the first year will indeed require some adjustment (especially for work outside your field of experience). You may be better served by setting goals for what you will do going forward.

Schedule a meeting with your mentor to plan by objective. In that meeting, talk about your strong interests, clarify with your mentor what expectations you will address, and determine what goals you will strive toward. Plan objectives that you will work to achieve, and within what reasonable period of time. Hopefully your mentor will be amenable to such a process and talking through everything with you. If he/she is not comfortable with sorting things out with you, then you may want to consider another lab and a mentor who really wants to be a mentor. Don't let go of your belief in yourself!

James Stith: First, I would ask you to reassess your reasons for selecting a postdoc in a field different from that in which you received your degree. How dissimilar are those fields and what is the minimum set of knowledge and skills you should expect to bring to your new field? I would urge you to have a conversation with someone in your new field (other than your advisor/supervisor) who can help you think objectively through those issues. Given that you have earned a Ph.D., clearly there is a group of people who believe that you have the ability to do research. Hence the question should not be whether you have the ability, but of finding the right match and working environment.

Have you considered having a discussion with your Ph.D. advisor? Assuming you have a good relationship with him and you trust his advice, I strongly urge you to share your situation. With the knowledge gained from discussions with others in the field and your previous advisor, you should then have a discussion with your postdoc advisor. While I recognize that this will be a difficult conversation to have, it is nonetheless essential. You need to determine the level of his expectations of your knowledge and skills and precisely why he/she believes you have not met those expectations.

You should also be prepared to discuss your belief that you have not received the guidance and support you believe you should receive. You should listen as carefully and as objectively as you can to decide the merit of his beliefs about your inability to have a research career. If after carefully analyzing all the input, you decide that you still want a career in the "new" field, but that your current position will not work, start your search for a new position. Use lessons from your present experience to articulate the attributes of the new position that will allow it to more closely match your goals and expertise. Good luck.

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